Perspectives: How Switzerland can promote sustainable agriculture and transform eating habits

Sustainability in Agriculture Perspectives

Climate change, dwindling resources and growing social inequalities: The future of our food supply, and therefore of agriculture, is facing major challenges. How can Switzerland find a balance that takes equal account of the interests of the economy, society, and the environment? Based on the latest research results from NRP 73, this article shows what sustainable agriculture in Switzerland could look like in the future.

Comprehensive information on the topics summarized in this abstract on sustainable agriculture and food systems in Switzerlandcan be found online in the original on the website in German, French, and English. They are freely accessible to the interested public. The projects listed were under the scientific direction of Prof. Dr.-Ing Alexander Mathys, Dr. iur. Elisabeth Bürgi Bonanomi, Dr. Thomas Nemecek, Prof. Dr. Robert Finger, Dr. Christian Schader and Prof. Dr. Sebastian Heselhaus.

Agriculture and sustainability

Agriculture plays a crucial role in climate change. The use of synthetic fertilizers releases nitrous oxide (N2O) and livestock farming releases methane (CH4). Both are powerful greenhouse gases. The expansion of agricultural land at the expense of natural habitats is leading to a decline in biodiversity. Monocultures and the use of intensive farming methods further reduce the diversity of species. Nutrients and pollutants that end up in water bodies, as well as the extensive use of water, have a negative impact on the quality of water bodies and groundwater.

The value chain in the food system extends from agricultural production and suppliers, through processing, distribution and retail, to consumption and disposal. The dietary habits of the western world also play a major role in the consumption of resources in agriculture. They cause an excessive ecological footprint. Added to this is food waste, which amounts to an average of 65 kg per capita per year worldwide.

65 kg of wasted food per person per year can feed a person healthily for 18 days.
Prof. Dr. Alexander Mathys, ETH Zurich

The National Research Program 73 has examined the most important opportunities and challenges for sustainable agriculture and nutrition in Switzerland. The scientific results of the projects prove that there are viable ways and means of successfully reducing economic and social burdens.

Sustainable food production in Switzerland

The NRP 73 projects, “Digital innovations for sustainable agriculture” and “Interplay between economy and ecology on Swiss farms”, have asked themselves which strategies can be used to promote sustainable food production in Switzerland .

The result of a series of Swiss case studies led by Dr. Thomas Nemecek is as fundamental as it is motivating for the domestic agricultural sector. They prove that environmentally friendly production and economic profitability are not contradictory. Nemecek cites three axes as prerequisites for improvements in the agricultural sector: firstly, the shifting of subsidies from less environmentally effective to more environmentally friendly farms. This is linked to the switch from animal husbandry to plant-based production. Secondly, in areas with low agricultural yields. In mountain regions in particular, incentives must be provided for animal-friendly farming that supports ecological services. Thirdly, it is important to ensure that have access to tools that enable them to assess and reduce their environmental impact in practice.

In order to promote sustainability in Swiss agriculture, the overarching, most important recommendation for action is that food production, income generation and environmental protection must be harmonized. The authors of the studies also emphasize the importance of promoting new technologies and knowledge about sustainable agriculture throughout Switzerland through educational opportunities and networks.

An important keyword on the road to sustainable agriculture is precision farming. It already enables a massive reduction in the use of fertilizers abroad. This results in lower nitrogen and N2O emissions. This without any loss of income. This is made possible with the help of data and images from satellites or drones.

Precision agriculture poses a particular challenge for Switzerland. The agricultural areas are small. They also often have irregular shapes. Existing solutions must therefore be developed further. At the same time, the application costs for drone technology are currently (still) high. In order for the digital infrastructure to meet the needs of smaller farms in Switzerland, it still needs to be expanded.

Agricultural production outside Switzerland

Switzerland is heavily dependent on food and animal feed imports such as cocoa, soy and palm oil. Therefore, agricultural production outside Switzerland must also be taken into account in order to improve food systems and organic farming.

The project studies on “Diversified food systems thanks to sustainable trade relations”, “More sustainable value chains”, “Switzerland’s sustainability footprint” and “Voluntary environmental initiatives by the private sector”, among others, followed this objective.

Creating transparency is one of the greatest challenges in reducing the burdens caused by Switzerland. Without trust in trading partners and without disclosure of information, improvements in the food system can only be implemented selectively.

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NRP 73 develops knowledge for a sustainable, resource-conserving economy in Switzerland that promotes prosperity and strengthens competitiveness.

According to the authors of the studies, public incentives support sustainability in agriculture: market access for sustainable products must be improved. Environmentally harmful production processes must be prevented. Trade agreements can help to achieve these goals. Agreements on environmental and social standards lead to improvements. To ensure that the required standards have an impact beyond the paper of the trade agreements, they must not only be binding, but also as precise as possible.

In many segments of the global agricultural industry, know-how and technology transfers are crucial for improvements. In livestock farming, for example, technical innovations combined with the right knowledge make a surprisingly significant contribution to reducing methane emissions.

Changes in eating habits

The NRP project “Nutritional and Environmental Impacts of Swiss Food Consumption” is based, among other things, on the recommendations of the Swiss Society for Nutrition and Consumption. On this basis, the study shows how an astonishing win-win effect can arise.

On the one hand, changes in eating habits reduce the negative environmental impact. On the other hand, this also improves the health of consumers. This in turn enables measurable savings to be made on the cost side at various levels. For example, hospitals can reduce both their environmental footprint and their costs by offering staff and patients attractive incentives for plant-based meals.

In contrast to organic food, there is a need for action on sustainability labels in Switzerland. Consumers in Switzerland want better regulation of sustainability labels for food, according to the findings of the research.

According to research findings, state certification of sustainable food systems and farms is a way to avoid greenwashing and confusion caused by too many different labels.

Obstacles and solutions for sustainability in agriculture

Numerous challenges arise in the development towards sustainable agriculture and the improvement of harmful food systems. At the same time, however, there are also extensive approaches to solving these problems. The central obstacles and strategies, based on the findings of the NRP 73 projects, include


  • Inconsistent definitions: Standards for sustainability in agriculture are not clearly defined.
  • Outdated theoretical foundations: The well-known theoretical approaches such as “multifunctionality” and “ecosystem services” are helpful in demonstrating the limits of the market. However, they are not enough to effectively tackle the current, complex problems.
  • Food losses and environmental impact: The project “Nutritional and environmental impact of Swiss food consumption”, led by Prof. Dr.-Ing. Alexander Mathys, shows that Switzerland is doing well in terms of social indicators, but not in terms of food losses and environmental figures.
  • Differences in environmental efficiency and economic performance: The study, led by Dr. Thomas Nemecek, shows that environmental efficiency and economic performance vary greatly between product groups and regions, with the region being the strongest influencing factor.
  • Insufficient political support: The current political framework conditions do not consistently promote the use of precision agriculture.
  • Lack of awareness of the benefits: Many farmers are not aware of the benefits and efficiency gains of precision farming.

Solution approaches

  • Introduction of new, holistic methods: New systemic approaches, which include both national and trade policy measures in agricultural policy as well as differentiated treatment of animal and plant foods for ecological reasons, help to record and implement improvements.
  • Creation of binding rules: Switzerland and sustainable Swiss agriculture need binding rules at all levels, nationally and internationally, which balance the numerous interdependencies in global ecosystems for the benefit of all involved.
  • Detachment from supposed conflicts of objectives: As Nemecek demonstrates, the differences between organic farming and ecological proof of performance are small. However, organic farming tends to be more environmentally friendly. There are no conflicting objectives between environmental efficiency and economic efficiency.
  • Changing eating habits: A more sustainable diet can significantly reduce environmental pollution, costs and health risks in Switzerland.
  • Adapt weighting and approach: Animal and plant foods should be measured with different yardsticks for ecological reasons.
  • Expansion of digital structures: Policymakers must invest in the necessary digital infrastructure to make it available as a public good and support farmers in the use of precision technologies.

Further exciting insights into strategies for sustainability in agriculture and Switzerland’s food system are available directly at This resource provides comprehensive information in German, French and English.

This text was produced in cooperation with the National Research Program (NRP 73). The editorial responsibility for all text content lies with the authors.